Top Six Masterpieces: The Music of Satie

Byvu lita

Jan 3, 2024

The French composer Erik Satie was an extraordinary figure whose work defies categorisation.

With his famous Gymnopédies on one hand and his eccentric and frankly unperformable (not difficult, just very long) Vexations on the other, Satie was a man who veered from one extreme to the other.

His daily habits were just as far reaching – his diet supposedly consisted only of white food: ‘eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, mouldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor,’ he wrote, and Satie was the official composer of the weird sect, the Mystical Order of the Rose.

Witness, also, Satie’s various dress phases over the years: a fondness for wearing priestly robes was followed by seven identically coloured velvet suits. The composer’s final ‘look’ was the neat bourgeois gentilhomme, sporting bowler hat, wing collar and umbrella.

He also liked to keep to a strict timetable. In his Mémoires d’un amnésique (‘Memoirs of an Amnesiac’), Satie tells us: ‘I rise at 7:18; am inspired from 10:23 to 11:47. I lunch at 12:11 and leave the table at 12:14. A healthy ride on horseback round my domain follows from 1:19pm to 2:53pm.

‘Another bout of inspiration from 3:12 to 4:07pm. From 4:27 to 6:47pm various occupations (fencing, reflection, immobility, visits, contemplation, dexterity, swimming, etc.). Dinner is served at 7:16 and finished at 7:20pm. From 8:09 to 9:59pm symphonic readings (out loud). I go to bed regularly at 10:37pm.’

Here’s a taste of the variety of this curious chap’s output.

Best Satie works


These were the works that broke Satie away from 19th-century harmonic and structural norms – the Gymnopédies are dreamy, simple, almost simplistic works for piano in 3/4 time with an ironic title that refers to a festival in ancient Sparta where young naked men danced and competed against each other.

Furniture Music (Musique d’ameublement)

Satie was the inventor, they say, of ambient music. Here he is providing some background music for various parts of a dinner party – the arrival of the guests, during the meal and so on.

Véritables préludes flasques pour un chien

Satie’s ‘truly flabby preludes for a dog’ are the second volume of his musical shaggy dog stories, published eventually by Durand after they had rejected his first volume of Préludes flasques. They’re odd pieces, slightly angular, jocular and with hints of the orient.

La diva de l’empire

Here’s Elly Ameling singing this wonderful cabaret song – you don’t need us to introduce the piece. Elly does that admirably.


For some reason, Satie thought it a good idea to require the pianist to play his Vexations theme 840 times in succession. Not surprisingly, it’s not often performed, although this video gives you a good idea of what it must be like to be in the audience. We particularly like the lack of attendees here, save for one chap who sits in front of the camera and a couple of ladies who stand at the front nattering around seven-and-a-half hours in while the poor pianist carries on regardless.

Trois Morceaux en forme de poire

Some fun to end with. And by God do we need it. This exotic, charming piece was written for piano duet, although it comprises seven movements rather than the three stated in the title. That crazy Frenchman!

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